By Terri Brandt
I enjoy the eye-catching beauty of wildflowers growing along roadsides, trails, and streambanks. Nature provides all the color of the rainbow to my favorite country roads, hiking trails, and walks near home. But on closer observation, it is not simply the beauty of these plants that interests me. Lately, I’ve noticed that wildlife is attracted to wildflowers as much as I am and I’ve discovered that they do so for many different reasons.
It wasn’t until I grew wildflowers in my own garden that I realized the full pleasure and satisfaction that growing Missouri native plants can bring. I can both enjoy the lovely additions to my front yard and know that I’m providing a habitat for birds, butterflies, frogs, and an interesting array of other colorful visitors. I think of my garden as an ecological link between the earth and the wildlife that lives there. Here’s why.
Some animals and insects depend completely on certain kinds of plants. For example, the monarch butterfly depends specifically on milkweed plants for survival. Butterfly milkweed are those orange flowers we see along roadsides in summer. The adult butterfly lay their eggs exclusively on milkweed leaves, which hatch into wildly striped caterpillars. The caterpillars feed on the milkweed leaves, which contains a toxin that is not harmful fo the caterpillars, but makes them unpalatable to birds.
I’ve also noticed that birds and insects come to my garden to feed on nectar produced by the different flowers. I once planted a single swamp milkweed in a tiny prairie garden surrounded like an island by the ocean of my neighborhood of perfectly manicured lawns. Every time I visited my garden, the milkweed was covered with colorful butterflies and other interesting insects, especially monarchs. My little garden was the only source of butterfly food (flower nectar) in the neighborhood and I truly believe that they came to my garden because I planted native wildflowers.
I also think of my garden as a historical link to our past. There were the plants encountered by our grandparents and great grandparents when they first took root upon this land. The gathered and grew native plants to eat, cure colds, heal wounds, dye clothes, build houses, and much more. At a time when there wasn’t a grocery or pharmacy, people had prairies and woodlands and the knowledge of plants to find a cure to what ailed them.
Finally, so many plants that were once common are threatened or lost from habitat reduction. We’ve all seen areas once beautiful with wildflowers scraped down to the soil like a scar on the land. Growing native plants can put back into the ground what has been taken. In turn this tends to nurture wildlife and gives me satisfaction in some small way of knowing that I’m restoring health to my corner of the earth.
Editor’s note: As a regular feature, I will reprint articles like this from earlier newsletters.